So many factors have played into the Bucks uprise into contention this season.
Giannis Antetokoumnpo’s ascent into an MVP candidate. Head Coach Mike Budenholzer’s brilliant first year calling the shots. Khris Middleton’s rise to stardom.
Those are just a few of the many elements that have made the Bucks arguably the best story of the season.
If there’s one storyline centered around the Bucks that’s not getting enough attention, it’s been the savvy moves made by the front office, led by general manager Jon Horst. It’s a shame because, of all the awards that the Bucks are definitely going to be in consideration for – Most Valuable Player, Coach of the Year, Executive of the Year – Horst probably has the best case out of all three.
That’s not taking anything away from what either Giannis or Coach Bud have done this season.
Giannis has been one of the league’s best players for a few years, but up until now, the Bucks never built the proper team around him. Coach Bud has yet again proven to be one of the league’s best coaches, but he needs the right personnel to make a contender. It was Horst who made this all possible.
The most obvious qualifier for winning Executive of the Year is building a winning squad. For the past several years, the Bucks have had the main ingredient to a contender in Giannis. What they’ve put around him since his rise to elite status has been a little questionable. But, since Horst took over, the Bucks have made the right moves to assemble the best team they’ve had since the Ray Allen days.
That all started last year when the team traded Greg Monroe for Eric Bledsoe. Bledsoe was productive last season until he largely disappeared when the Bucks faced the Celtics in the postseason. This season, he’s become a new man.
While his point average and three-point percentage have gone down from his first season – Eric’s never exactly been a real threat from downtown – Bledsoe has been playing much better overall in his second season with a Bucks. He’s putting up the best field goal percentage of his career (49.2) while upping his rebounding average (5.5) and assist average (4.7). His play has been so impressive that the Bucks gave him an extension just last week, totaling four years and $70 million.
All his production cost was Greg Monroe, who never was a good fit, and a late first-round pick. Considering what Bledsoe has done for them, that was well worth the price and then some. Of course, that move was made last season. What Horst has done this season has been even more impressive.
That starts with the offseason. Jon had the right idea in mind when he thought that the best players to put around Giannis were shooters, and he definitely got a haul.
First, he brought in Ersan Ilyasova. Ilyasova is a classic stretch-4 player. He is a feared three-point shooter and he’s actually one of the best in the league at taking charges. What made him especially appealing was his familiarity with the Bucks, as he spent the first seven years of his career in Milwaukee – the last two of which were with Antetokounmpo.
His numbers have taken a hit this season – primarily because his minutes have gone down – but Ilyasova has so far lived up to the three-year/$21 million deal he signed with Milwaukee.
If there’s one addition that has unquestionably exceeded what he’s being paid this season, it’s Brook Lopez. The one question everyone should be asking themselves is, “How did Brook Lopez fall of everyone’s radar last summer?” The guy played a huge role the Lakers’ late resurgence last season and yet somehow had to settle for signing a one-year, $3.3 million contract.
Lopez has by far and away been the best cost-effective addition of the season because he’s been a perfect fit for the Bucks. His floor-stretching has been a huge plus – he’s shooting almost 37 percent from three on 6.5 attempts a game – but his presence as a shot blocker has been a nice surprise. Brook is currently averaging 2.3 blocks a game, which is a career-high and the highest block average he’s had since 2013.
The one mistake the Bucks may have made was signing Lopez to a one-year deal, but thanks to the next trade, they should have the cap flexibility to keep Brook long-term.
A lot of fuss has been made about who Horst has brought in this season, but special note should be made of who the players he let go of. Props to him for letting Jabari Parker go, as Parker was a $20 million disaster in Chicago and will probably be on the market again this summer. Bigger props need to be given to Horst for trading away all the dead weight on the roster.
John Henson’s role was heavily reduced thanks to the additions of Lopez and Ilyasova. Ditto for Matthew Dellavedova as he struggled to find time over Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon. By trading both for George Hill, and his almost entirely non-guaranteed contract next season, the Bucks will have a ton of cap flexibility this summer.
Frankly, Hill hasn’t really done much, if at all, for Milwaukee. Let’s be honest though. Any positive contribution from him this season is an added bonus. The Bucks brought him in primarily to open up the books and retain who they can. If they’re able to do just that, then a deal like that is worth giving up a first-rounder.
Even when it seemed like the Bucks were set, they rightfully capitalized on the opportunity to get better. They traded expendable assets in Thon Maker – who disappointed following a good playoff performance again – Jason Smith, and four future second-round picks for Nikola Mirotic.
Mirotic may be a defensive liability, but the three-ball he possesses could be lethal for the Bucks when the playoffs roll around. Mirotic was cold-blooded for the Pelicans last year in the playoffs – shooting a scorching 43 percent from deep. Now that he’s playing next to one of the league’s fiercest drivers in Giannis, he’s going to get a lot of wide-open looks.
So far, the offense has been a plus-20.5 with Niko on the court according to NBA.com. Remember, aside from maybe parting ways with the draft assets, he cost next to nothing to acquire.
Finally, the Bucks made one last good move while they still could – adding future Hall of Famer Pau Gasol to the squad. Gasol is by no means the dominant offensive force he once was and odds are he’s not going to see a lot of minutes in Wisconsin. There is one component he brings that Milwaukee lacks – championship experience.
Even if he’s nowhere near his prime days, Gasol’s advanced playoff pedigree could positively influence the Bucks when they enter the enhanced stakes of the postseason – whether he’s on the court or not.
All of this has gone so swimmingly thanks to what has been the best addition made by Horst in his tenure: Coach Bud.
Budenholzer has unlocked another level of basketball in Milwaukee, which he deserves major credit for, but it was Horst and the rest of the front office who deserve the credit for choosing him as head coach.
Now, Horst and the front office isn’t responsible for Milwaukee’s roster in its entirety. What they are responsible for is getting the Bucks to become the team we all thought they had the potential to be for years.
The Bucks now have a better team to surround the Greek Freak, the cap flexibility to work with this summer, and a head coach who can get the best out of everyone.
Because of Jon Horst, Milwaukee can finally say that they have much more bang for its buck.
NBA Daily: Bruno Fernando Is Ready To Take On The NBA
After his sophomore season at Maryland, Bruno Fernando is confident that he is ready to take on the NBA, writes James Blancarte.
The 2019 NBA Draft Lottery kicked off the draft season in a shocking way as numerous teams jumped into the top four due to the new draft structure. After the Lottery, it’s a bit easier to predict the order in which Zion Williamson, Ja Morant and R.J. Barrett will be selected. Who gets drafted after that, and in what order, is still very much unclear. There are some consensus players in the upper half of the first round. After that, things get very interesting.
Expect the mock draft boards to be all over the place as we move closer to this year’s draft, especially after going through the Combine. Many once less-heralded players show up to the Combine with eye-opening physical measurements, impress in workouts and scrimmages and demonstrate a level of professional polish, among other things.
Last year, after his Freshman season as Maryland, center Bruno Fernando participated in the draft process. Fernando did not sign with an agent and ultimately returned to Maryland where he continued to raise his profile. This year, Fernando again participated in the Combine and spoke with Basketball Insiders.
“I think what’s different this time around is just how much easier it’s gotten. For me, how much more comfortable I am. How much easier it is. Obviously, you know what to expect,” Fernando told Basketball Insiders. “I think just really being here and being around the guys on the team has been a completely different experience than I had last year. This year I know a lot more of the guys. I’ve been working out with a lot of different guys. I think it’s just been a much, much better experience.”
Starting all but one game his sophomore year, Fernando averaged 13.6 points, 10.6 rebounds, 1.9 blocks and two assists per game. These averages were a significant jump over his freshman year. Fernando uses an aggressive, mobile game at and around the basket to do his damage. After solidifying his game on the court, he felt comfortable enough signing with an agent and letting Maryland know he wouldn’t be returning for his junior year. Fernando is now confident about his positioning in the draft, which played a factor in his decision to not play in five-on-five scrimmages.
“Last year I was in a position where I didn’t really know where I stand as much. Last year I had to find out a lot of things coming into the combine,” Fernando said. “And this year I think I am in a position just by talking to my agent and my coaches where I feel like I’m in a position where I’m a lot comfortable compared to last year, in a much better place. Having that that feedback from teams really, my agent really felt like that was the best decision for me not to play five-on-five.”
Fernando’s offensive prowess and athletic upside have him looking like a solid first-round pick. According to the Basketball Insiders version 3.0 mock draft, Fernando is projected to go anywhere from 14th- 29th overall. Tommy Beer projects him to go 25th. Being drafted in the first-round, in general, portends a better career as teams find themselves with a greater financial stake in the player and accordingly will be pinning higher hopes for that prospect.
At 6-foot-10, Fernando projects as a low post threat with excellent handwork who can score with a variety of moves down low as well as a lob threat. Fernando also occasionally takes advantage of steal and breakaway opportunities to run the floor and score easy points with his ferocious dunking ability. He didn’t do much damage from distance, although his shooting stroke and mechanics make that part of his game a potential future weapon in his arsenal. Fernando addressed that very point.
“The part of my game that is unseen so far is my ability to space the floor. My ability to dribble the ball and put the ball on the floor, take guys off the dribble and my shooting ability,” Fernando told Basketball Insiders. “I really think my shooting ability is something that people don’t notice that I am able to shoot the ball. Just because of my situation in Maryland where I didn’t really take many shots. You know, I never really had to come outside and try to play outside. You know we had a lot of really good players on the perimeter. I think it’s really just a matter of me staying to true to myself, who I am and trying to win in the best way possible.”
Any team in need of a possible pick-and-roll threat who can score down low should keep an eye on Fernando. Whether a team believes that Fernando can also be successful as a stretch big is not as clear. Where Fernando ends up is still totally up in the air. Regardless, he’s grateful for the opportunity to be the first representative from his own home country of Angola to play in the NBA and made it clear that he has been hearing from other Angola natives.
“Sending a lot of love and positive energy, lot of words of encouragement for me and I think it is really special to get those text messages,” Fernando told Basketball Insiders. “Having people from home texting me every single day. Just knowing that a whole nation is behind me. I’m here fighting and sacrificing to make a dream come true, something that will not just benefit me but a whole nation.”
NBA Daily: Who Is Cam Reddish?
An underwhelming season at Duke casts a shadow over Cam Reddish, who oozes talent and potential. Shane Rhodes looks to answer the question: Who is Cam Reddish?
“I’m Cam Reddish.”
Cam Reddish gave the tongue-in-cheek response Thursday at the 2019 NBA Draft Combine when asked “who he is” as a basketball player.
But who is Reddish?
A former high school phenom, five-star recruit and projected top pick, Reddish was expected to flourish at Duke University under the watch of Mike Krzyzewski. When R.J. Barrett and Zion Williamson later followed him to Durham, North Carolina, the three were expected to take the NCAA by storm.
Things didn’t quite go as planned.
While he is still a projected lottery pick, the jury is out on just who Reddish is and how his game will translate to the NBA. A dominant force in high school, the reserved 19-year-old took a backseat to Barrett and Williamson as the three tried but failed to capture a National Championship in their lone season together at Duke.
When compared to the sky-high expectations that were set for him, Reddish underwhelmed mightily as a Blue Devil, and that played a major part in their failure. Relegated to the role of a spot-up shooter and the third option on offense, Reddish averaged an okay, not good 13.5 points on just 12 attempts across 36 games. He managed a meager 35.6% from the field (33.3% from three) and dished out just 1.9 assists per game. When he had the ball, he often deferred to Barrett and Williamson, too often for some.
The focal point of his high school team at Westtown School, Reddish was lauded for the ability that made him a top recruit. He oozed (and still oozes) athleticism – Reddish, who weighed in at 208 pounds, was measured as 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot wingspan at the Combine – and is as versatile as they come. At Westtown, Reddish ran the point, while he spent most of his time at the two-guard or in the front-court at Duke. He was an aggressive, efficient scorer that had no problem getting what he wanted on the floor with the ball in his hands.
But at Duke, that player that Reddish was, the aggressiveness and ease at which he operated, seemed to disappear for long stretches. Those struggles have cast a large shadow over someone that had the look of a future superstar, and Reddish’s draft stock has taken a hit as a result. While some still stand behind him and his talent, plenty of others have faded Reddish in favor of other prospects.
But, at the Combine, Reddish isn’t dwelling on what was or what could have been at Duke. He just trying to learn and get back to being that do-it-all force that he was.
“I’m just trying to learn about the NBA process,” Reddish said. “I’m just trying to get back to who I can be, who I am.”
But that begs the question: who, exactly, is Reddish, and what could he do at the NBA level?
“I feel like I can do everything,” Reddish said. “I was more of a shooter this year – I don’t want to classify myself as just a shooter. I feel like if I just go out there and play my game, I can do a variety of things.”
“Once I show that, I should definitely move up [draft boards].”
There were plenty of flashes of that player during his short stint at Duke. Reddish, at times, seemed to will the ball into the basket, while his shooting stroke appeared to be as good as advertised. He had a knack for performing in the clutch, with multiple shots to win or tie the game for Duke, or keep them in it down the stretch when the others started to fade. The wing managed double-digit points in 23 games, 15 of which he posted 15 or more points (with 20 or more points in eight of those). Reddish managed 18 multi-steal performances and recorded a block or more in 16 games as well.
Wrap all of that up with his plus-defensive ability, and Reddish could very well prove the type of player that could do a little bit of everything for an NBA squad. But he can bring more than that, not only on the court, but off the court as well.
While some may perceive his passiveness alongside Barrett and Williamson as a negative, a lack of “mamba-mentality” or killer instinct that many teams hope for in their top draft picks, Reddish could (and probably should) just as easily be applauded for his willingness to share the ball and step into an ancillary role on a team loaded with talent. As we saw this season with the Boston Celtics, who were projected by many to go challenge the Golden State Warriors for the Larry O’Brien trophy but flamed out against the Milwaukee Bucks after a season fraught with discontent, that can be hard to do on the biggest stage.
And, while he is the quiet type, Reddish made it a point to say that evaluators shouldn’t confuse that for laziness or lack of effort.
“I’m kind of reserved – my personality is kind of reserved – some people might take that as lazy or too laid back. But that’s not just who I am, I’m just a naturally reserved, calm guy.”
There were certainly issues, however.
Despite flashes, Reddish wasn’t the player he could be on anywhere near a consistent basis, even in a smaller role. His time at Duke revealed some major deficiencies in his game and presented some serious causes for concern; a penchant for bad shots, struggles close to the basket and the inability to maximize his athletic gifts. On more than one occasion, he looked to have turned the corner, only to drop another underwhelming performance soon after.
All of that doesn’t exactly bode well for Reddish’s transition to the NBA, regardless of the team that picks him on draft night.
But, the potential is there for him to be great. Now it’s on Reddish to capitalize on that potential.
Reddish could very well prove the most polarizing prospect in the 2019 Draft Class. His ability to maximize his natural talent and recapture the aggressiveness that pushed him to the top of his recruiting class could prove the difference between him becoming the next Jeff Green or the next Paul George
Or, should he really find himself at the next level, he could become the first Cam Reddish.
NBA Daily: Grant Williams: Household Name In The Making
On Friday, Tennessee’s Grant Williams announced that he would stay in the NBA Draft — but this is just the beginning for the collegiate standout, writes Ben Nadeau.
On Friday, Grant Williams made the most important decision of his young career.
After a strong three-year stint at Tennessee, Williams has elected to remain in the selection pool, a choice that will undoubtedly culminate in celebration next month at the 2019 NBA Draft.
At 6-foot-7, Williams effortlessly presents the type of well-rounded skillset that has had scouts drooling all week at the NBA Draft Combine. As Tennesse climbed the NCAA’s power rankings this past collegiate campaign — even standing as Division-I’s No. 1 team for four weeks — Williams’ name and stature deservedly rose too. The Volunteers eventually suffered a heart-breaking overtime loss to Purdue in the Sweet 16 this springtime but by then the damage had been done: Williams was somebody worth watching.
In that late March Madness loss to the Boilermakers, Williams racked up 21 points, seven rebounds, four assists and two blocks on 56.3 percent. A few days prior, during the Round of 32, the high-intensity junior stuffed the box score for 19 points, seven rebounds, five assists, three blocks and four steals. And if those numbers seem impressive — and don’t worry, they are — that’s because Williams practically averaged a similar line all season en route to his second consecutive SEC Player of the Year award.
But that’s not the only reason why Williams has first round-worthy plaudits either, showing promise as a flexible defender and hardcore challenger this week alone.
“Just the improvement that I had throughout my career, showing that I progressively got better — I think teams value good guys and value competitors, so then that really helped me over the course of my career,” Williams told Basketball Insiders on Thursday. “And coach Barnes, like I said, those guys that put me in the best position to help win as well as become a better player.”
As a capable three-point marksman (32.6 percent) and an underrated passer (3.2 assists), Williams fit flawlessly into that modern big man mold that every front office has chased in drafts for the last half-decade. The sample size is a tad small at just 1.2 attempts per game from deep in 2018-19, but many will see Williams as a two-way positive — a high-percentage offensive contributor with lockdown capacity on the opposite end.
During the combine, Williams was adept at switching in the pick-and-roll, a skillset that bodes well for defending multiple positions at the next level too. Even more impressive, back in January, he went 23-for-23 from the free throw line to propel Tennessee past Vanderbilt in overtime — aberration, it was not, as he hit at 81.9 percent for the entire season to boot. But Williams believes that his ability to draw fouls could offer a unique glimpse at more of his NBA-ready strengths.
“Maybe, [but] fouls are different in the league, I think it’s more physical of a game — so you might not get those certain calls,” Williams said. “But it’s just a matter of showing your toughness and being able to be that guy that isn’t pushed around and can hold his own.”
Ultimately, Williams is the complete package — all he’s missing now is the household name.
Soon that will change too.
Williams’ massive choice to remain in the draft likely reinforces that his first-round projections were too good to turn down. In Basketball Insiders’ latest Consensus Mock Draft, two writers sent Williams to the Cleveland Cavaliers at No. 26, while the other pair selected him one pick later at No. 27 for Brooklyn. Elsewhere, The Athletic recently plugged him in at No. 27 too and The Ringer went even higher at No. 17.
Yahoo! Sports, CBS and ESPN all have ranked Williams somewhere within that range too, while Andy Katz — longtime draft analyst — openly gushed about the Volunteer on national television.
Unsurprisingly, Williams’ list of honors is much longer than we can feasibly print but the highlights simply prove that the 20 -year-old has reigned atop Division-I for nearly a full year. NCAA Unanimous First Team All-American, 2019 and 2018’s SEC Player of the Year, All-SEC First Team — in both AP and coach-led versions — and plenty of conference-given Player of the Week awards decorate Williams’ budding trophy case. Today, the Volunteers’ Twitter account made the most succinct point of them all: “Plain and simple, one of the best to ever wear the Orange & White.”
And even though he believes that his day one performance wasn’t quite up to snuff, Williams is determined to prove that the best is yet to come.
“Just the defensive consistency as well as knocking down the shot,” Williams told Basketball Insiders. “I didn’t shoot the ball well [yesterday], I tested well, I think, I had 20 on the bench press and stuff like that before I played. I think that [today] is going to be a better day to show more.”
Of course, Williams could’ve been lured back for a final, year-long curtain call at Tennessee — but without Admiral Schofield and, potentially, Jordan Bone, that thought became a much more difficult torch to bare alone. Leaving that guaranteed money at the wayside, particularly so without his All-SEC teammates, would have been a tough ask — particularly so if Williams is now destined to hear his name called in the first round.
Still, Williams is built differently and watching him play for five minutes, whether in an NCAA Tournament game or combine scrimmages, quickly confirms that notion.
On Thursday, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski joined the analyst’s desk to share a gem he’d picked up from Kendrick Perkins, one of the coaches working at the combine, noting that Williams, out of nowhere, naturally assumed a leadership role throughout the scrimmage portion of the afternoon.
“Williams came in with his team, started organizing the team right away, talking to guys about their strengths, how they could come out here and play well, play to each other’s strengths,” Wojnarowski mentioned. “[Perkins] said it’s kind of rare to see that leadership, that type of initiative in the combine process.”
For Tennessee and their fans, however, that’s just a normal day with Williams, their beloved three-year standout who is finally ready to make his jump to the professional level.
But when asked about what’s he’s getting out of the NBA Draft Combine, Williams offered up a refreshing slice of perspective.
“[I’m] enjoying it, just enjoying the process, as well as enjoying the opportunity because not many guys get this opportunity to be here,” Williams told Basketball Insiders. “And that’s part of the reason why I played [in the scrimmages], I wanted to go through the full experience.”